italicissima is dedicated to real Italian language as it appears in contemporary literature. Here you’ll find a monthly post on a novel of literary and linguistic interest and, whenever possible, a language-themed interview with the author. What you won’t find are books written exclusively in standard Italian (i.e., the language of textbooks and classical literature), especially the ones they teach you in school.
Leonardo Sciascia (b. 1921, Racalmuto; d. 1989, Palermo) is one of Italy’s foremost authors. A novelist, essayist, playwright and politician, Sciascia used his writing to expose the corruption inherent in Italian society; specifically, the collusion between the government, the Church and criminal organizations such as the mafia. One of his most famous novels, Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl) (Einaudi, 1961) was written as a refutation of the prevailing theory in Italy at the time that the mafia didn’t exist.
Inspired by the 1947 assassination of communist trade unionist Accursio Miraglia, Il giorno della civetta opens with the murder of Salvatore Colasberna, a communist and owner of a small construction company who was killed because he refused to accept “protection” from the mafia. Despite numerous witnesses, no one comes forward with information, not even the victim’s brothers. As Captain Bellodi, a northerner from Parma, investigates the case, he rejects the “delitto passionale (crime of passion)” explanation typically used to cover up mafia killings and traces the murder all the way to Rome. But Bellodi soon finds that the facts are not enough to win against the powerful forces at work in Sicily and beyond.
The language of Il giorno della civetta is as effective as the story in providing insight into the Sicilian culture. Although the novel is written mainly in standard Italian, the presence of Sicilian dialect and Italianized Sicilian terms give the text a regional feel. Notably, however, Sciascia felt that the standard was more suitable for expressive purposes than dialect, a belief that stands in stark contrast to that of his contemporary, Andrea Camilleri. As a result, Sciascia’s body of work is marked by a progressive deregionalization and standardization with respect to language, which makes Il giorno della civetta all the more important for historical purposes.
REGIONAL ITALIAN of SICILY
ingiuria (literally insult, but means Ital. soprannome, i.e. nickname)
“Soprannome,” disse il maresciallo, “qui quasi tutti hanno soprannomi: e alcuni così offensivi che sono proprio ingiurie.”
(“Nickname,” the marshal said, “here almost everyone has a nickname: and some are so offensive that they’re really insults.”)
lupara (Ital. fucile; Eng. shotgun)
Sì, alle sei e trenta; dall’angolo di via Cavour, due colpi a lupara, forse da un calibro dodici, forse una schiopetta a canne segate…
(Yes, at six thirty; from the corner of Via Cavour, two shotgun blasts, maybe from a twelve gauge, maybe with a sawn-off double barrel…)
chiarchiaro (Ital. zona pietrosa; Eng. rocky zone)
E se nel chiarchiaro si trovasse anche il corpo del Nicolosi?
(And if in the rocky zone we were to also find the body of Nicolosi?)
lu chiuppu (Ital. il pioppo; Eng. the poplar tree)
Ho conosciuto uno soprannominato lu chiuppu, cioè il pioppo, per la statura e per una specie di tremito che lo muove…
(I met a guy nicknamed lu chiuppu, that is, the poplar tree, for his height and for a kind of tremor that moves him…)
Bargieddu (Ital. Bargello; Eng. Chief of Police)
Il vecchio disse che forse il nome giusto era Barricieddu, o forse Bargieddu: ma in ogni caso significava malvagità, la malvagità di uno che commanda; ché un tempo i Barruggieddi o Bargieddi comandavano i paesi e mandavano gente alla forca, per piacere malvagio.
(The old man said that maybe the right name was Barricieddu, or maybe Bargieddu: but in any case it meant evil, the evil of one who commands; because the Barruggieddi or Bargieddi once controlled the towns and sent people to the gallows, for wicked pleasure.)
Cu si mitti cu li sbirri, ci appizza lu vinu e li sicarri. (Sicilian)
Chi si mette con gli sbirri, ci rimette il vino ed i sigari. (Italian)
He who associates with cops loses wine and cigars. (English)
E lu cuccu disse a li cuccuotti, a li chiarchiaru nni vidiemmu tutti. (Sicilian)
Ed il cucù disse ai cucuotti, al chiarchiaro ci incontreremo tutti. (Italian)
And the cuckoo said to the baby cuckoos, we’ll see everyone in the rocky zone. (English)
Two years after the publication of Il giorno della civetta, the Italian parliament opened an inquiry into the question of the Mafia. The timing of this inquiry is intriguing, as is Sciascia’s admission that he spent a year deleting characters and events from the first draft in conformity with the dictates of Italian law. As he explains in a later edition of the novel, “non l’ho scritto con quella piena libertà di cui uno scrittore…dovrebbe sempre godere (I didn’t write it with the complete freedom that a writer…should always enjoy).” One can only wonder about the nature of the original text and the impact it might have had.
Note: Fans of Il giorno della civetta shouldn’t miss director Damiano Damiani’s 1968 film of the same name, featuring Franco Nero, Lee J. Cobb, Nehemiah Persoff, Tano Cimarosa and the stunning Claudia Cardinale.